Saturday, August 13, 2011

Through the window of a train

Mom called me about two weeks ago to ask if I’d like to come to a party she wants to throw for a bunch of old pals. She called it a “Geezer Gathering,” made up of high school friends from more than 50 years ago. 

“No, not really, mom. That doesn’t sound like a lot of fun,” I said.

“Well, would you consider coming down to help me set up?”

“OK, sure, mom. I’ll go to your geezer gathering.”

So, here I am, riding the train somewhere between Lompoc and Goleta, two hours into a six and one-half hour journey on the rickety Amtrak rail to the Santa Ana station, not far from mom’s old Victorian home in Tustin where she plans to have her party.

The ride along the pristine California coastline is hypnotic, the noise of the train and chatter of passengers are muffled by a modern take on “The Music of Thelonious Monk” jangling through the ear buds plugged into my laptop.

Even with this technology at my fingertips, I feel “old school.” No tablet, no Blackberry, no iPad, just a clunky old laptop and cheap cell phone with pay-as-you-go service. No special features anywhere on my person—unless you’re looking for something non-digital.

The train is generally a good ride, if for no other reason than you don’t have to worry about driving or paying for gas, the view is nice, and you have the option to tune out the world if you like, indulge in a book, bury yourself in a computer, or take a nap.

Today, I ignore the passengers as much as possible. I don’t feel like being social, even though I’m generally a social person and feeling a touch lonely.

A cute but annoying little girl swings her legs in the aisle, supporting herself on the seats in front of me, she pushes up with her hands, lifts her weight and swings. Her grandma eats donut holes and looks at the rugged coastal terrain through the window.

For some reason, today’s view from the train evokes a nostalgic kind of hope, the sort of hope I knew and indulged more as a younger man, when the world seemed larger, filled with new and endless possibilities. As I get older, I’m sadly learning, the possibilities seem to get narrower, and less inviting. I’ve noticed how much more difficult it is for older, boomer types like myself to get too hopeful, especially now with the economy as doubtful and uncertain as it ever was, but even more so as we turn gray and decrepit. 

But today, if it’s not hope that I’m feeling, it’s at least the suggestion of something like hope, a mystery, any way, that isn’t shrouded and foreboding but perhaps even gleaming, putting a different—if not new—light on things.

The Pacific, under the heavy marine layer, summer grey and wet, pops in and out of view through the train window, the misty morning holding down the coastline under a white blanket of timelessness. It’s hard to tell time in this coastal purgatory of summer mist. Is it still morning, or afternoon?

In either case, the landscape of scrub oak, green cypress, marshes, and sea birds dropping into view out of the mist brings me back to the present moment, the only moment I know that has any real possibilities, as I look out the train window. 

I’m amazed at the long, long line of old fence posts tilted and worn, no rails between them, holding nothing, just standing awkwardly erect, one after the other, for a distance that seems absurd. It’s a ghost fence that runs along the tracks between the train and the ocean below. What could that fence line have been built for? How long has it been standing like that with nothing to hold or keep out?

I’ve got other absurdities on my mind as well. Amber said we should end our love affair. We should try living as roommates, she said, until one of us decides to move. I’d like to move; so, I guess, would Amber. Neither of us can really afford it. We’re both broke. 

“Get out now!” a friend told me. “You’ll be sorry if you don’t.”

I thought he was being alarmist, a little melodramatic, as friends can be when they’re watching out for you. I didn’t know that he’d gone through a similar breakup. I didn’t know that he also had kept separate rooms in the same house with his former girlfriend—for nearly six months. 

“It was fine until she started fucking the guy she left me for in the room next to mine,” he told me. “You better get out when you can, dude.”

It’s only been a few weeks, and now Amber has moved in her 12-year-old son, and asked me yesterday if I’d thought about finding another place. It’s a good idea, she suggested. It’s nothing personal, she assured me, and I believe her, it’s what’s best.

As I look out the train window, and ponder the flight of a distant heron, the message sinks in: It’s over, it’s time for me to move on, and I’m a lot older now than I was seven years ago when we started, the possibilities for lifelong companionship narrowing ever more precipitously. Ah, the end of another conjoining of minds and bodies that could only wrap themselves into a tangled web of tears and unhappiness instead of blissful companionship.

“We’re not right for each other,” she said. 

All those years, we kept pushing the wrong buttons, couldn’t seem to find the right ones, and each time it got so messy and hurtful and confusing. 

“I don’t want you to feel sad,” she said.

I wouldn’t feel sad if I wasn’t a bit touched, hounded by a confusing mix of the cynic and the romantic, always hoping, always doubting. It’s a curse, really. I don’t know where it comes from but the tension between hope and doubt seems always to bring my relationships to ruin. I do feel sad.

As the train rolls on, I can feel myself moving on, drifting, searching, hoping, doubting.

“So, are you gonna find yourself another cute hot young thang—huh?” teased a friend after I’d told her that Amber wanted to separate.

“I’m not looking, really. I’m happy to be a free agent, that’s all.”

She moved her body close to mine and put her lips next to my ear: “You like young pussy, don’t you?” she whispered.

I gagged. Well, that’s not the only thing, I stammered. 

Amber’s young, and beautiful, no doubt, but she’s smart and caring and—for some damn reason, we don’t get along very well. We agree on that. We’ve had some fine moments amid the turmoil and troubled times. I’ve seldom felt the difference in our ages, only when the occasional stranger mistook her as my daughter. Sex wasn’t the only thing that kept us together.

Still, it feels absurd, in a way, if not entirely liberating, to be moving on, at least at this point in my life, where I’d like to be more settled, and it becomes clearer by the moment that my days are numbered. I try not to think too hard that life is short, or at least not get morbidly obsessed with the idea, just acknowledge the fact, that I’m older now. I’m no spring chicken, as mom likes to remind me, and it’s quite possible that I will remain alone. 

No one my age wants to be alone. I learned this a long time ago from a friend, a monk, whose entire life was dedicated to celibacy and solitude.

“The thing I fear most,” he said of death, “is that no one will notice that I’m gone.”

Even in his solitude, he wished not to be alone. Even in that final separation through death, he wished to be remembered.

I had high hopes, and so did Amber, that we could work things out, work through our troubles and stay together until the end—and be remembered. Along the way, perhaps, we both knew it wasn’t going to work, but we’re stubborn, and kept at it, and maybe, in the end, our stubbornness is what brought us to this painful juncture.

Now, I’m left with this thought: “Why did I hold on for so long? Will I soon be living in a trailer park, sad, lonely, broken up and finished like so many other geezers who grow old and die in their aluminum cages without so much as a hint of their loss?”

Or what about this thought: “Will the white blanket of timelessness that obscures my view of things and seems to rule my mind lately be swept away, as the coastal breezes outside the train window now lift the misty veil, to uncover lighter, more hopeful possibilities? Are any possibilities left?”

The damned romantic and cynic in me are at it again, stirring up the ridiculous inner tension between hope and doubt. Where do these feelings come from? My Buddha nature, governed by so many Western follies, is too weak and immature to overcome the turmoil, but I can at least feel it, breathe it, and observe it. That I can do. I don’t like it, but I can do it, even though I’m not Buddhist.

Frankly, I’d rather drink beer. I’d rather go to my favorite bar, Schooner’s, and sit comfortably, get blissfully shitfaced, and then quietly observe and meditate. It’s probably not the best way to practice mindfulness but I’ll bet Alan Watts would approve. 

At the geezer gathering, I’ll be co-host with mom to a party of older folks, people in their 70s who are much closer to the precipice than I am, whose view of any sort of timelessness or aloneness is probably much sharper and more poignant than my own. Perhaps that precipitous view is where the romantic and cynic in me may actually, one day, finally find common, quiet ground.

Like my monk friend, in death I fear not being remembered; in life, I fear being alone.

I look through the train window into the distant fields where farm workers hunch low from the waist to pick strawberries. I ate a piece of strawberry with my yogurt this morning; it was surprisingly sweet and delicious. The breeze outside has broken the white sheet of marine layer into patchy clouds and blue haze, a perfect August day. The beaches must be crowded by now. The train barrels down into L.A. §


  1. . . . or you could bump into the next most important person along your great journey. Provided you're paying attention.

  2. Russ: I'm definitely open to that. I'm paying close attention.